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Is it now okay to kill people we find offensive?

The use of guns is becoming a common feature of the protests and violence raging in many parts of the United States. The way in which the Wisconsin city of Kenosha has been turned into a veritable warzone suggests that some people now see destructive behaviour as a way of gaining attention or making a point.

The recent shooting dead of a man in Portland, Oregon highlights the growing trend for dehumanising people who are on the other side of the political divide. In this instance protesters celebrated the fact that a ‘Nazi’ had been killed. The man was a member of the right-wing organisation Patriot Prayer – which means social media was soon full of claims that it was only a piece of ‘fascist scum’ who got killed.

One man tweeted: ‘If you’re just hearing about a member of Patriot Prayer being killed or another being arrested in Washington you should catch up on who they are. SPLC [the Southern Poverty Law Center] has a good example. They’re not a “conservative” group. They’re at minimum alt-right/fash.’

The implication of this tweet is that this man had it coming. The SPLC, which specialises in branding groups it dislikes as racists or fascists or alt-right, was quick off the mark. It published an account of the disturbances which claimed that the members of Patriot Prayer in Portland were outside agitators who wanted to inflict their white-supremacist hate on the city.

What disturbed me most about the shooting of this member of Patriot Prayer was not simply the taking of a life but the manner in which it was reported and discussed. Numerous commentators treated it as no big deal. Circulating a picture of another member of Patriot Prayer being beaten up, one man tweeted: ‘Well, he probably wanted to get beaten up on camera, and he did.’

The casual manner in which violent attacks on opponents are discussed in the language of ‘they had it coming’ points to an ominous development in political life. Today’s politicisation of identity is often informed by an instinct to dehumanise those who ‘offend’ us. This dehumanisation of opponents is expressed in a language that treats them as evil people with no redeeming qualities. The promiscuous use of labels like ‘fascist’ and ‘white supremacist’ is about indicating that millions of people exist on a lower moral plane than the apparently enlightened advocates of identity politics.

The dehumanised othering of people who offend supporters of Black Lives Matter and other identitarian movements suggests that political opponents are no longer seen as individual human beings. Rather, they are just ‘white scum’ or ‘white supremacists’ or ‘Nazis’. And from this perspective, ridding the world of these vermin is not a problem. This is why protesters in Portland were so ready to celebrate the death of the Patriot Prayer member. Watching supporters of BLM and Antifa celebrating a killing illustrates how the weaponisation of identity destroys respect for human life.

The dehumanisation of opponents is linked to the highly personalised way in which supporters of identity politics view the world. Back in the 1970s they invented the idea that ‘the personal is political’. Since then, the personal and the political have become increasingly intertwined, to a point where criticism of a person’s ideas is often viewed as an attack on the person him or herself. This is why even asking questions of identitarians will be described as ‘offensive’ or as an attack on a person’s mental health and wellbeing. This personalisation of politics makes it impossible to engage in debate, since criticism is now seen as being tantamount to an attack.

The personalisation of politics has led to a situation in which political adversaries are no longer seen as legitimate opponents but as dangerous threats to one’s wellbeing. And so, opponents can be readily pathologised and viewed as being beyond the political pale. The mission of advocacy groups like the SPLC is to add legitimacy to this trend for treating political opponents as morally diseased.

The idea that ‘the personal is political’ has mutated into an intolerant outlook in which some groups think they have the moral authority to impose their will on every member of the community. In recent months, protest has assumed an increasingly personalised form. Scenes of protesters yelling at people eating outside restaurants and demanding that they show support for the BLM cause confirms that they have no respect for other people’s personal space. Protesters have also been shining lights on people’s homes and yelling at them to join their march. People who direct their rage at homes have clearly lost sight of the distinction between public and private life.

Sadly, when the personal becomes so politicised it is easy to lose sight of the fact that others are people too, and that they have a right to conduct their personal lives without interference. In some, thankfully still rare instances, the politicisation of the personal leads to a callous sense of indifference to other people’s lives. The events in Portland should serve as a reminder that the personalisation of politics can have lethal consequences.

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